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Rocketship charter schools singled out in California as Race to the Top finalist


Rocketship Mosaic English teacher Judy Lavi discusses a reading passage with several dozen students in one corner of the former learning lab. Photo by John Fensterwald.

Rocketship Mosaic English teacher Judy Lavi discusses a reading passage with several dozen students in one corner of a flexible classroom. Credit: John Fensterwald, EdSource Today

Rocketship Education, with eight K-5 charter schools in San Jose, one in Milwaukee and invitations to expand into urban districts in other states, is the sole finalist from California competing for $120 million in the second district Race to the Top competition.

The U.S. Department of Education announced the finalists last week for the federal grant program for education innovation; nationwide, 29 districts and two charter organizations qualified as finalists.

The Department of Education is expected to choose up to 10 winners by year-end that best advance “personalized learning”: creating ways, often through technology, of challenging students to excel at their own pace.

Redwood City-based Rocketship, which is seeking a $20 million grant over four years, has gained national attention – and gotten impressive Academic Performance Index scores for its mostly low-income Hispanic students – through its pioneering work integrating online learning. It has done this by rotating students for about 100 minutes a day though a “learning lab,” where students use online adaptive software – programs that diagnose individual students’ strengths and weaknesses by analyzing previous answers and then tailoring exercises and lessons for them.

Last year, Rocketship switched to a cohort model for fourth and fifth graders, incorporating the computer lab into one large “flexible classroom,” the equivalent of three classrooms. Two or three teachers and an instructional aide work with 80 to 100 students in groups of varying sizes during the day depending on the nature of the activity. While a large group does online work or a guided reading exercise in one part of the room, in other corners of the room a math teacher might work with a small group having trouble with fractions and an English teacher might guide a dramatization or debate over a history question.

Developing this model of differentiated learning for future Rocketship schools is a primary objective of the proposed grant. “We want to dig into the flexible 4th-5th grade model,” said Kristoffer Haines, Rocketship’s senior vice president for national development.

Training teachers in blended learning – how to understand data from learning labs and adapt lesson plans to individual students’ programs – is challenging, particularly for Rocketship’s many inexperienced teachers hired through Teach for America. These skills generally aren’t taught in credentialing programs. And Rocketship redesigned the flexible classroom on the fly last year. That approach, with teams of teachers working together all day, requires the leadership of a head or master teacher and creates opportunities for specialized skills, Haines said.

Creating professional development tools, both online and for summer teacher trainings, is central to Rocketship’s Race to the Top plan. It’s also critical for an organization like Rocketship, which plans substantial growth with schools in new regions.

Other parts of the proposal include:

  • Providing Chromebook computers to students and educating parents on their use so that students can work at home and during the summer to prevent summer learning loss. Rocketship plans to work with parents on obtaining subsidized Internet rates.
  • Broadening family engagement through working with People Acting in Community, or PACT, an inter-faith organization in San Jose that is active in education and housing issues – it has organized rallies in support of Rocketship – and has trained parents in leadership and school involvement.

Rocketship is convinced that blending online and classroom learning is the future of urban education and vows in its proposal: “We will make dramatic gains in student achievement and serve as an example to districts across the country.”

But reflecting growing pains, the challenges of its new school redesign and resistance to charters in some San Jose-area school districts, Rocketship hit a rough patch over the past year.

Test scores at most of its schools fell for the first time. While the Franklin-McKinley School District welcomed it and helped locate a site for Rocketship’s new school, last month Morgan Hill Unified rejected a charter for Rocketship, and the San Jose City Council deadlocked on selling it land for a new school. (Rocketship has approval from the Santa Clara County Board of Education to open an additional 20 new schools in the county, which includes San Jose.) It also fell short of its target enrollment in Milwaukee, where it opened a school this fall. Meanwhile, outside of California, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Newark and other districts have courted Rocketship to come to their districts.

Other Race to the Top-District finalists include the Denver, Baltimore, East Saint Louis, Norwalk, New Haven and Santa Fe public school districts.

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him or follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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